His career in Formula One was over. Jenson Button was certain of it. Last Dec. 5, while standing at the baggage claim in London's Gatwick Airport, he got a call from his business manager, who delivered the devastating news: Honda was pulling out of F/1, leaving Button's team without financial support. Button, a native of England who had only one victory in 53 career starts for Honda (and no wins in six previous years on the circuit), was so shaken that he dropped his cellphone—then nearly dropped to his knees.
But in March, just three weeks before the start of the season, a group led by fellow Brit Ross Brawn, a former Ferrari technical director, purchased the Honda team and renamed it Brawn GP. Button, 29, arrived in Melbourne, Australia, for the first race of 2009 with no major sponsors and, seemingly, no hope of contending for victories. But then the most unlikely F/1 story in recent memory began to unfold. Brawn installed newly configured diffusers on the rear of the cars piloted by Button and teammate Rubens Barrichello. These aerodynamic devices, which some other teams contended were illegal, were used only by Brawn GP and the Toyota and Williams teams until April, when an arbitrator cleared their use. The results were spectacular. By June, Button had won six of the first seven races and held a commanding 26-point lead in the standings.
But as Button was thriving, the series nearly disintegrated. Eight teams, including Ferrari and McLaren, threatened to leave Formula One and form their own circuit. The teams were upset over a proposal by Max Mosley—president of the FIA, the sport's governing body—that called for a spending cap in 2010. After much hullabaloo in the European press, the split was averted on June 24 when Mosley agreed to step down at the end of the season and the FIA announced it would not limit teams' annual budgets, which can reach $200 million.
Why didn't the teams want a cap? Because spending money in the technology-driven F/1 series usually translates into victories. In fact, it isn't surprising that the deep-pocketed teams of Red Bull and McLaren have made dramatic gains over the summer and that the underfunded Brawn GP team is now struggling. In the last three races Button hasn't finished higher than fifth; his lead has been trimmed to 18.5 points over Mark Webber of Red Bull. Seven races remain, and as the circuit heads to Valencia, Spain, for Sunday's Grand Prix of Europe, Button feels like a cyclist who has used all his energy to sprint to the early lead in the Tour de France. "It's like wearing a yellow jersey knowing that when you get to the mountains, you're going to be overtaken," he says.
Can Button, who has driven almost flawlessly this season, hang on and win his first world title? It may depend on Brawn, who was the architect of Michael Schumacher's seven championships at Benetton and Ferrari. What Brawn has accomplished at his headquarters in Brackley, Northamptonshire, during the four-week midseason break will go a long way toward determining if the curious case of Jenson Button has a happy ending.
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Cup analysis from Lars Anderson and Mark Beech's Racing Fan at SI.com/bonus